On my return from Australia I was hugely unsettled and debated turning round and heading back again. But I had to remember why I had come home. I knew I needed to be closer to my family and as technology has improved I’m sure the world has become to feel a bit smaller, but at that time monthly phone conversations with a huge time delay were the only option and left me feeling quite empty.
I have done a lot by myself and living at home again was a strain – on everyone. I managed to get a job quickly, as most horsey people do, and I found that I was riding out point to pointers again at a fiver a horse. Now if you have every ridden in a racing saddle, day in day out for four, five, six lots, in every weather forecast imaginable, you will empathise with how well earned that fiver was, so when the opportunity to work full time at one of the yards arose, my body could tell this might be a bit easier on the old knees.
I went on to work for Wilson Dennison for two years where I hunted, evented, did sales preparations and got to drive a lovely horsebox to the top thoroughbred sales in Ireland and England. We hunted every Saturday and a there is nothing like a near death experience to make you appreciate a Saturday night – even though you were ready for bed by 9pm. I had my fair share of scrapes on the hunting field, but have no doubt how it sets you up for sitting tight and having complete trust in your horse. There is no amount of schooling can prepare you for some of the tight spots you might get into on the hunt field and it is only the quick thinking of the jockey and the heart of the horse that will keep you safe. Wilson was a tough act to follow out hunting, but with some of the best hunting horses in Ireland under us we just had to trust our steed and ‘kick on’.
I have known many horse men and women at the top of their game, whether that be training racehorses or riding showjumpers, and although every character is different, the roller coaster lifestyle of horses affects everyone involved. Horses are hard work, fact. Sailing, road racing, and motorbikes are the other ‘mainstream’ sports that I would assume would comprehend the amount of effort that goes into keeping every element of the operation going, before you can even think of being competitive.
If you are a marathon runner you stick on your trainers and open your front door. Ok, I know there’s more to it than that, but the high of winning with horses is because you have managed somehow, to line up thousands of variables like dominoes, so when you tip the first one it leads to first place. How many shoes are pulled off the day before a show, in the field, and guess what you can’t find it. How many horseboxes won’t start as you are all packed up ready to go to a qualifier that will get you to the show you have been working towards for years? How many heads are scratched trying to work out what you’ve done to deserve such bad luck?
The frustration and disappointment with horses is profound but when you balance that with the rush of adrenalin when you go well or even win, the end result appears to be potently addictive. How many riders get injured and come back time after time. How many owners wait years to see a horse, they have been paying a fortune for, win a race. While everyone ‘non-horsey’ looks on in disbelief, fellow horsemen shrug and walk on, keen to get back to contending with their own issues.
The lifestyle that accompanies this delicate balance of variables can often become erratic as everyone frantically tries to keep as much control as possible, but ‘normal’ life can become a mere myth. Relationships with friends, family and partners can prove difficult to maintain as the extreme highs of a Saturday post-win partying are overshadowed by the Monday morning hangover. This volatility can affect some on a much deeper level and mental health issues can be masked by a continuation of the celebrations.
For me, horses were always a therapy and seem to adjust something deep inside of me that makes me, me. But I have seen the dark side and I know I am lucky where others haven’t been.